Category Archives: Plants

Happy Holly Days

Holly along the Turkey Hill Trail in Lancaster County, PA
Holly along the Turkey Hill Trail in Lancaster County, PA

American Holly (Ilex opaca) occurs naturally in the eastern U.S. from New Jersey to Florida to east Texas.

I always see it in southeastern Virginia but rarely find it in western Pennsylvania.

If it's present, you'll notice holly in winter because it's one of the few green plants in January.  Keep an eye out for it, even in Pennsylvania. This young plant was photographed in Lancaster County.

Happy holly days!

😉

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Look For Aliens

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Late fall is the perfect time of year to look for alien plants in Pennsylvania.  Natives are brown or leafless but alien species are still cuing on the seasons back home.

How do you find aliens?  Notice patches of green in the brown landscape.  Here are three photos to give you some practice.

Aliens in the top photo are circled below.

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens while you're driving ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens on the ground ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

There's so much goutweed and garlic mustard in this last photo that it would be filled with red circles if I labeled all of it.   🙁

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Beautyberries

Beautyberries in a garden, November 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Beautyberries in a garden, November 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

I'm very fond of the color purple so I was captivated by these stunning berries on a bush in someone's garden.  I'm not surprised that they're called beautyberries.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa) is a mostly-tropical plant native to Asia, Australia, Madagascar, and the Americas.  American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) ranges from Maryland to Florida so garden plants here in Pittsburgh could be native cultivars or imported.

Amazingly, American beautyberry contains four chemicals that can be used as mosquito repellent.  USDA has patented the use of one of them: callicarpenal.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

At Last It Rained and …

After weeks of dry weather it finally rained in late October and ... wow!   Local wild food enthusiast and mushroom hunter, Adam Haritan, found a mother lode of giant puffball mushrooms in western Pennsylvania's woods.

Join in his enthusiasm and learn about these edible mushrooms in his Learn Your Land video above. Subscribe to his YouTube channel to get periodic updates on mushrooms and edible plants.

And this weekend you'll have an opportunity to learn from Adam Haritan in person when he presents "Late Autumn Foraging For Edible Wild Plants & Mushrooms" at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Sunday, November 5th, 2-4pm.  This free event is hosted by the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy.  ( Map and info here.)

 

(video at Learn Your Land on YouTube)

Sexing Spicebush

Spicebush fruit, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush fruit, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

How do you tell the sex of a spicebush?  In autumn the females have bright red fruit.

Flowering plants (angiosperms) have different ways of reproducing:

  • 90% of species have "perfect" flowers containing both male and female parts -- stamens and pistils.  "Perfect" flowers are bisexual or hermaphrodites.
  • Monoecious species have separate male and female flowers on the same plant.  Did you know that corn (maize) is monoecious?  The tassle on top is the male flower; the corncob grows from the female flower.
  • Dioecious species have male and female flowers on separate plants.  Only 6% of flowering plants are dioecious, mostly woody species.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is dioecious but I didn't know that when I encountered this explosion of spicebush berries in the Laurel Highlands.

Profusion of spicebush berries, Laurel Highlands, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Profusion of spicebush berries, Laurel Highlands, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Right next to the fruit-laden bush was another one with no fruit at all -- just tiny green knobs, the buds for next spring.  Why?

Aha!  This plant is male.

Spicebush without fruit, just buds, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush without fruit, just buds, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you know what to look for you can sex spicebush at any time of year but autumn is the easiest. In spring the spicebush flowers are so small that you'll want a magnifying glass to see their tiny structures.

For closeups of male and female spicebush flowers click here at the New Jersey Plant Society's webpage on Lindera benzoin.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Cranberry Harvest Time

My sister-in-law describes how the floating cranberries are gathered (photo by Kate St. John)
My sister-in-law describes how the floating cranberries are gathered (photo by Kate St. John)

October is cranberry harvest time in Massachusetts.  Last week at Cape Cod my sister-in-law took us to see a flooded cranberry bog, red with floating cranberries.

Cranberries are native perennial vines that grow in sandy soil.  Before mechanization people used to pick them by hand, crawling around on their hands and knees as shown in this painting of Nantucket in 1880.

Jonathan Eastman Johnson: The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880
Jonathan Eastman Johnson: The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880

Nowadays the harvest uses machines and this unique quality of the cranberry -- it floats.

In the photo at top, my sister-in-law describes how the bog is dry during the growing season.  In the spring, honeybees are brought in to pollinate the cranberry flowers.  Then in October when the berries are ripe, workers flood the bog and use a thresher machine to knock the berries off the underwater vines.  The berries float, the workers corral the berries, and machines lift the cranberries out of the bog.

My husband went back a few days later to see the rest of the process.  Here the cranberries are corralled and shuttled up out of the bog into the large black truck.

Cranberry harvest at Cape Cod: the berries are lifted into the truck on the left (photo by Rick St. John)
Cranberry harvest at Cape Cod: the berries are lifted into the truck on the left (photo by Rick St. John)

A man monitors the machinery as cranberries tumble into the truck (photo by Rick St. John)
A man monitors the machinery as cranberries tumble into the truck (photo by Rick St. John)

 

This 5 minute video shows the entire process.

 

The cranberry harvest is underway this month in these northern states and provinces: New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Quebec.

 

(photos of a Cape Cod cranberry bog by Kate and Rick St. John. Painting of The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880 by Jonathan Eastman Johnson via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Video from True Food TV via YouTube)

Leaf Miner on Coltsfoot

Leaf miner on coltsfoot (photo by Kate St. John)
Leaf miner on coltsfoot (photo by Kate St. John)

Autumn is a good time to look for unusual leaves. They used to be boring until something happened to them.  Like this.

There's an elaborate squiggle on this coltsfoot leaf (Tussilago farfara) made by a leaf miner, an insect larva that makes a path as it eats within the leaf tissue.  Eventually the larva settles down to pupate and the path comes to an end.  When the adult insect hatches it leaves a hole.

What makes these lines?  I had no idea until I googled "leaf mine on coltsfoot"and found the answer.  A blogger at Nature Post collected similar coltsfoot leaves, put them in jars, and waited for the adult insects to appear.  It turns out his leaf mines were made by tiny moths called Phyllocnistis insignis.

See more leaf mines and a photo of the adult moth in his Nature Post from October 2013:  A Little Scientific Discovery.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

Chicken Of The Woods

Chicken-of-the-woods (photo by Chuck Tague)
Chicken-of-the-woods (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

This mushroom is easy to find right now.  It's edible(*) and it tastes like chicken so it's called Chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).

I found a huge one years ago with a chicken-sized chunk taken out of it.  Apparently a mushroom hunter had been there ahead of me, as described in this 2010 article: Chicken of the Woods

 

But don't listen to me when it comes to mushrooms.  (I know nothing!)  Learn about Chicken-of-the-woods in this video by Adam Haritan of Learn Your Land.

 

 

(*) Note that an "edible mushroom" can sometimes be poisonous.  Be sure you know what you're doing!

(photo by Chuck Tague, video by Adam Haritan)

Fruits On Migration

Fruits of Devil's Walkingstick (photo by Vern Wilkins, Indiana University, Bugwood.org)
Fruits of Devil's Walkingstick (photo by Vern Wilkins, Indiana University, Bugwood.org)

Travel puts nutrition demands on birds in migration. What's on the menu for birds that eat fruit?  Here's what they've been eating lately in Pittsburgh's Schenley and Frick Parks.

Number One on the menu is devil's walkingstick (Aralia spinosa). The picture above shows a beautiful full fruit cluster but you can't find these anymore.  The tops of the plants are now empty pink stems with a few berries hanging on.  Here's one in Schenley Park, looking up from below.

Fruit has been mostly eaten from Devils Walking Stick, 25 Sept 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fruit has been mostly eaten from Devils Walking Stick, 25 Sept 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Another favorite are these tiny black cherries (Prunus serotina).  Many black cherry trees have already been stripped of their fruit by large flocks of American robins and cedar waxwings.

Black cherry fruits and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Black cherry fruits and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Invasive species are also on the menu.  Amur, bush and the other alien honeysuckles have showy red berries.

Amur honeysuckle fruits (photo by Kate St.John)
Amur honeysuckle fruits (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Porcelain berry, another invasive, is a favorite with cedar waxwings.

Porcelain berries (photo by Kate St. John)
Porcelain berries (photo by Kate St. John)

 

I don't know if these wild grapes are native or alien, but they sure look good for birds.

Wild grapes (photo by Kate St. John)
Wild grapes (photo by Kate St. John)

 

And here are two native species ...

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and ...

Ripe Pokeberries (photo by Kate St.John)
Ripe poke berries (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Spicebush (Lindera sp.) is especially nutritious and a real favorite of wood thrushes and veeries.  There's a lot of it along the Upper Trail at Schenley Park.

Spicebush berries (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush berries (photo by Kate St. John)

 

The plants have laid out a feast for the birds so their fruit will be eaten on migration.

 

(photo credits: Devil's walkingstick by Vern Wilkins, Indiana University via bugwood.org; Black cherries from Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by Kate St. John)